My Empiphany

My Empiphany

I have been writing a blog in Japanese for four years now, mainly writing about why so many Japanese businesspeople have trouble using English as a communication tool.

My epiphany came one day when I was listening to a conversation between one of students and teachers. Oh, before telling this story, I need to explain what I do. I run a private English conversation school which all lessons are conducted over skype, kind of a distance learning school. So normally, I don’t get to hear the actual lessons.
For the past years, the types of lessons conducted were mainly asking teachers to find an interesting article based on the student background, send it to him/her beforehand, and talk about the topic during the lesson which lasted for about 30 minutes.

It was in the beginning of the year 2007 where I noticed many students expressing the same frustrations of going through meetings in English, getting lost in the first 5-10 minutes because of a word or phrase they couldn’t understand, and just sit there till the end of the meeting, not knowing what was going on. Many foreign firms were buying Japanese firms those days and meetings in English were starting to grow.
These Japanese businesspeople will then rush to a bookstore, buy books to increase their vocabulary pool, start subscribing podcasts to improve their listening skill, and read English newspapers to brush up their reading skills. Then, after a couple of weeks of hard work, they walk into the same meetings only to find out that the same exact thing had occurred (getting lost in 5-10 minutes). They blame themselves again, studying much harder creating a downward spiral.
“Why is this happening?” This was the question I wanted to figure out. I wanted to create a setting where unexpected comments/stories come up (which happens in most business meetings) and see how people respond in these situations. To do this, I choose one of my favorite stories from the book “Made to Stick (by Chip and Dan Heath) and had my teachers explain the story and ask the student what he/she thought about it. Here’s how it went (please note that italics are spoken by teacher and non italics by student):
Today I want to talk about Mother Teresa and charitable fund raising. A concept introduced by Mother Teresa. Ummm… She once said. If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” OK, you know. To try to convey this concept, I’d like to… you know… compare two letters that are asking people to donate money… So one group of people received the following letter. Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.
In Zambia, 3 million people face hunger due to severe rainfall deficits. Four million Angolans-one third of the population-have been forced to leave their homes.
Um hum
More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance. Please donate some money to help save these people. OK So that was the first letter.
Um hum
So a different group of people received a different letter. So let’s listen to the second letter. The second letter said: “Rokia is a seven-year-old girl from Mali, Africa.  She is desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, as well as provide basic medical care and hygiene education. Any money that you donate will go to Rokia.” So that was the second letter. So what I want to ask you is which group of people donated more money? Those who received the first letter or those who received the second letter…
Ummm. I’m sorry I couldn’t understand you well. I’m sorry I’m not good at hearing English. I’m sorry…..
Totally embarrassed, the student kept apologizing. Of the 30 students I listened to, around 80% of the students fell into this category.
WOW! This is exactly how we communicate when we use Japanese. This was my A-ha moment. I found out that it wasn’t a language (English) problem but a communication style problem. When we communicate using Japanese, we unconsciously put people’s feeling first. Meaning that we prioritize not to discomfort the person who we are communicating with over trying to completely understand the story. People’s feeling always comes before content. The fun part of this is that “people’s feelings” is very subjective (or we should say ‘very Japanese way of seeing things’) and Japanese see stopping the conversation to clarify things that they do not understand as very rude and discomforting your counterpart’s feelings which makes you a bad communicator (in Japanese standards).
Then comes the question. How can we, Japanese, communicate without clarifying things that we don’t understand? In a homogeneous culture, where we share the same vales, read similar newspapers, follow the same rules, we don’t need to explain things. We somehow “know” it. And because we don’t need to explain things, it’s very hard to explain “it” when asked. This is very different from countries where you have diverse cultures. You need to explain everything since you don’t “know” it.
The problem with most Japanese when communicating in English is that they use exactly the same communication style (prioritizing feelings before contents). They don’t even realize that there are different communication styles out there in the world because they only know the one style that they’re using. This is true to most of my American (or non-Japanese) friends too. People don’t realize that people communicate differently since they only know a single style to communicate.
So when I let my students, who take the test, see the following script, they cannot believe what they are seeing since this sounds so childish. When I translate this into Japanese, it becomes so weird that I cannot help but laughing my self. It’s totally not natural.
Today we’re going to talk about a concept related to “charitable fund raising”
Wait! I didn’t understand. You said “concert?”
“charitable fund raising”
I’m sorry I don’t know.
So “charitable fund raising” is trying to get someone to donate money.
Ahhh! Charity!
Exactly! So “charity” is something that you give money to and “fund raising” is trying people to donate money.
OK! “Charitable fundraising…” I understand…
Good. We’re going to talk about a concept introduced by Mother Teresa.
Oh, Mother Teresa. Very famous person!
Yes, she’s very famous! She once said “If I look at the mass, I will not act. But if I look at the one, I will.”
So I’m going to give you an example of what Mother Teresa was trying to convey. We’re going to compare two letters asking people to donate money. One group of people received a letter that said “In Zambia, three million people face hunger to severe rain fall deficits and….”
Wait. I’m sorry. Zambia means the place?
Yes, Zambia is a country in Africa.
So three million people face hunger to severe rainfall defecit. And in Ethiopia, more than 11 million people need immediate food assistiance. One-third of the population in Angolia was forced to flee their homes. So please donate the money to help save these people.” So that was one letter.
Only one place?
No, three countries. One country is Zambia where three million people faces hunger, second is in Ethiopia where 11 million people need food, and last is Anglila where one-thrid of poplulation had to leave their homes. Three African countries that need assistance..
Ahh. Three countries. Millions of people need food…in trouble….
Yes. So that was the first letter.
Then, a different group of people received a different letter. And their letter said that “Rokia is a seven year girl from Mali Africa.”
Mali, another country in Africa
Oh, Mali. OK. And you said “Wo kee a”?
Rokia. That’s the name of the 7 year old girl.
Ah… Wyo-kee-a
Good. She’s desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger and starvation.
Her life will be changed and better as a result of your financial gift.
With your support, “Save the Children” will work with Rokia’ family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her as well as provide basic medical care and hygiene education.
Wait. I don’t understand “Save the Children”…
Save the Children is a non profit organization just like Red Cross, or UNICEF
Ahhh, UNICEF… OK. I understand. And “hi-geen”?
Hygiene means cleanliness..
Like washing hands, drinking clean water, brushing your teeth… You get it?
Ah. I understand. So the money will be donate to Rokia.
Yes….So there are two different groups and each group received a different letter. So which group of people do you think received more money? Those who received the first letter or those who received the second letter?
Yes. I will donate the first letter….
When my students understand the “prioritizing contents over feelings” style, they suddenly become really good communicators. And what’s more interesting is that when I tell this story to my non-Japanese friends, they start understanding why their Japanese counterparts behaved in ways that they couldn’t understand.
There are many things that we do unconsiously that once realized, it opens our minds seeing the world in a totally different. My interest lies on communication and creativity. Since writing a blog about how I view “comminication and creativity” in Japanese an year ago, I have been inspired by so many people who share the same interest. That’s exactly why I began thinking about starting this English blog. I thrive for inspiration! I hope to meet people who share the same passion though this blog.

Posted by Masafumi Otsuka

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